Beowulf: The enduring appeal of an Anglo-Saxon ‘superhero story’


Here’s a great article from the BBC on the enduring influence of the epic poem that defined Western literature and thought:

Some 1,300 years on from when most historians believe it was written, Beowulf continues to be shared, adapted and revised, whether on screen, in print or in song.

JRR Tolkien, who was a noted expert on the poem, is widely thought to have taken inspiration from Beowulf for his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

According to Prof Andrew Burn, from University College London (UCL), the roots of popular medieval-themed video games and TV shows can also be found in this epic saga.

“Look at Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, Game of Thrones, any of those big TV franchises, and you realise what the perennial source of interest there is in the same themes: bravery, mortality, power struggles, social hierarchy,” he says.

Beowulf was one of my favorites as a student in high school and college. I now own translations by Kevin Crossley-Holland, Burton Raffel, JRR Tolkien, and Seamus Heaney. Of the four, my favorite is Heaney’s. Its sparkling, dynamic prose best matches the spirit and power of the story and its characters. Here’s a taste from page 51. It’s the scene where Beowulf, who has chosen to fight Grendel bare-handed, first tackles the monster in the mead-hall of King Hrothgar:

And now the timbers trembled and sang,
a hall-session that harrowed every Dane
inside the stockade: stumbling in fury,
the two contenders crashed through the building.
The hall clattered and hammered, but somehow
survived the onslaught and kept standing.

The legacy and importance of Beowulf was not only established by its being a robust and entertaining tale, but because it defined Western civilization itself. The worldview here is one of accommodation and repurposing of pagan traditions. Instead of scouring the old ways it encountered, Christianity adapted pagan values and made them its own. For example, Beowulf is presented as a warrior-savior, a kind of Nordic Jesus. And as James C. Russell argued in The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, Christianity in northern Europe was significantly altered to become a “world-embracing” rather than a “world-denying” religion. As Kevin Crossley-Holland concludes in the BBC article, one of Beowulf’s themes is that “On the whole, life’s to be relished, lived to the full, laughed with and at.”

JRR Tolkien certainly concurred with that view, as every page of The Lord of the Ring confirms.

18 thoughts on “Beowulf: The enduring appeal of an Anglo-Saxon ‘superhero story’”

  1. Fascinating post Mike, I didn’t know all this but can easily relate as you tell so clearly. Pagan traditions mixed in with Christianity I recognise from the land I grew up and England has it too.
    I really love the taster you give us from page 51. Fantastic language.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really enjoyed reading this. I absolutely love Beowulf, my undergraduate Capstone paper was on this epic. For that I used the Heaney translation but have since bought and read the Tolkien translation also.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Laci,

      Which version did you prefer? Both are excellent. Some gripe that Tolkien’s translation ( I should say “modernization”) is too scholarly and stiff.


  3. It’s always good to know that classics which hold honor-based societies are still cherished. I personally think it’s a shame it’s not now more like it was then in a social setting. But that would probably need people to start caring about community and future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nascent Ederren,

      True. I’m reminded of Edmund Burke: “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.” Wendell Berry has argued we can never be good stewards of the land until we open ourselves to caring for it and our local communities.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Diana,

      As I learned from re-reading Shakespeare, there are some books you cannot appreciate until you’ve lived enough to appreciate their truth.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. I’ve enjoyed every version I’ve read, but Tolkien and Heaney especially put passion and beauty in their translations.


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